The prospect of spending an hour and a half with an actor in a car while they sweet-talk and argue with people on the phone would normally be straight tedium, a stunt by an attention-seeking filmmaker, or an actor desperate to gain notoriety with a bit of gimmickry just as their relevance dims. But when the actor is Tom Hardy, it’s a different story. In Steven Knight’s spellbinding Locke, Hardy darts through the tense screenplay with such graceful ease that his work feels more like something lived than performed. By the time this downbeat nail-biter is done, it feels justified to finally go ahead and say that Hardy is easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. Not that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association seems to have noticed; sadly, it’s likely that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science will follow suit.
Ivan Locke (Hardy) spends the entire film in a BMW, driving to London at night in near real-time. He’s first spotted at the construction site where he is the foreman. Once on the road, he starts making calls on a hands-free phone. Grasping the wheel tightly with both hands, Locke starts relaying information that nobody wants to hear. The shock and incredulity from those he’s talking to illustrate just what a solid, respectable man he is. His eyes keep narrowing with the pain of it. But Locke isn’t a man to be turned away. So he grips the wheel tighter and delivers news.
He won’t be at the construction site the next morning to supervise his responsibility: the largest concrete pour in all of Europe. The slightest imperfection in the concrete or its pour could cause the entire 55-story building being constructed on top of it to collapse. No matter that his panicked bosses have fired him: Locke is going to walk his shaky-voiced underling Donal (voiced with quavering panic by Andrew Scott) through it. No matter that his sons and wife are waiting for him at home: he won’t be seeing them either, perhaps never again. His quiet repetition of “I’ve made my decision” has the sound of a judge’s sentencing.
Although the reason for Locke’s sudden disappearance is revealed not long into this compact film, it would spoil the story’s mood of needling surprise to reveal it here. Suffice it to say that Locke has made a massively uncharacteristic mistake. He is determined to make it right, no matter that doing so lays waste to every other facet of his life. Locke isn’t a man for half-measures, spurious gestures, or risks. You wouldn’t be surprised if he has lists of his lists. Although we never see him do anything but drive, dial numbers, talk, and occasionally blow his nose, Hardy delivers a potent sense of this man’s unflappability and resourcefulness before downshifting into darker regions. His softly articulating voice rises and falls like the smooth ribbon of highway he’s driving along (not speeding, of course), cajoling and coaxing the ever-more panicking people on the other end of the line into doing what he needs done.
Locke is a case study in crisis management wrapped inside an act of conscious self-demolition. It’s also a dreamy rhythm of disorientation, with Hardy’s soft susurrus of syllables coiling out over the hiss of tires while the yellow glare of the streetlights flare across the windshield and infuriated or pain-wracked disembodied voices spike out of the Bluetooth. Hardy manages the shifts in tone and personality with calmly authoritative precision, almost as though he were directing this gripping and tightly-wound story instead of performing in it.